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Veiled Threats: Widows and Pseudowidows (1/2)

2013 October 22

I once spent three years researching a particular widow, on and off.

The Duchess at the centre of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) acquires a lot of her edginess in the original play from the fact that her husband has died before the action begins. She is a young – and according to her brother Ferdinand, “lusty” – widow, whose combination of financial independence and sexual experience makes many in her vicinity nervous.

The equivalent man would be called “eligible”, and receive a lot of invitations from women with marriageable daughters. But a woman in the same situation becomes the subject of a campaign of surveillance and torture which ends in her death.

A victorian woman dressed in black with a black bonnet, wearing a shawl made out of black net, surrounded by bags of money.The more I worked on Webster’s play, the more I noticed that the Duchess was part of a much larger cultural anxiety around the figure of the widow in English literature. She’s an extreme case, admittedly: few other fictional widows end up eating apricots grown in horse dung, kissing the severed hand of their husband or being strangled on the orders of their lycanthropic and potentially incestuous twin brother.

But a continual low charge hums around widows, from the comic grotesque of Widow Twankey to the alluringly threatening Black Widows of gangster novels. Via the Wife of Bath, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham and Aouda from Eighty Days Around The World, to take a handful nearly at random.

Of course it alters across the eras, but time and time again, the figure of the widow acts as a focus for drama.

Sometimes the charge seems to derive from the fact that she is no longer dependent upon any man, or socially “explained” via her relationship to a father or husband. Sometimes it comes instead from the way a widow is seen as over-defining herself in relation to a man no longer present.

Either way, widows in literature often hold the potential to disrupt social order in a variety of ways.

Widows and Pseudowidows

This article, however, is not about widows. It is about women who are not widows. Or rather, women who aren’t widows whilst still looking, sounding, or acting like them.

When considering famous widows in literature, it struck me that two of the names that sprang to mind – Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations and Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – don’t technically fit the criteria.

misshMiss Havisham’s veil is worn to mourn the marriage that never happened, whilst Olivia’s is to remind her of her dead brother, whose memory stops her from wanting to receive suitors. Nonetheless, they both look to me as if they’re trying to take on the role, adopting some of the characteristics associated with grieving spouses.

They wear specific clothes to mark their separation from other people (and from their previous selves), withdraw from normal social life, and refuse to put themselves under the jurisdiction of men. Neither are exactly successful in their attempt to construct themselves positively within the role of a widow.

Miss Havisham has become an icon of “frustrated” and “twisted” womanhood, unsuccessful within the novel’s plot and the butt of jokes in subsequent culture. She becomes a “tragic” figure in both the classical and slang senses of the word: an image of wronged heroism in her own mind, and a sad bitter spinster to the world outside.

Her veil, usually a temporary garment to mark her passing between two states, becomes a fixture, blending with the cobwebs which now cover her wedding cake. In Miss Havisham, Dickens created a figure who memorably combines the revulsion and anxiety felt by Victorian (and later) society towards women who refuse to play out the social roles ascribed to them.

Charles_Robert_Leslie,_OliviaOlivia from Twelfth Night is similarly associated with a veil, at least at the beginning of the play. The first thing we hear about her is that for seven years the world “Shall not behold her face at ample view/ But, like a cloistress, she will veiled walk…all this to season/ A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh/ And lasting in her memory”.

When Viola (dressed as the male Cesario) manages to speak to her, Olivia prepares by putting her veil back on, setting up the comedy by-play in which Viola claims not to know who the lady of the house is, and the moment when Olivia pulls it back and demands “Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is’t not well done?”

Within the first act the grieving Olivia’s attempt to seclude herself is defeated by a combination of plot and Viola’s rhetorical skills. The play treats her mourning as one of the restrictive, self-imposed roles which so many of the characters are trapped in as the action begins. Orsino is locked into his schtick as self-obsessed Petrarchan lover, Sir Toby as the party knight who slinks home in the early hours of every morning, Malvolio as the image of Puritan rectitude and Olivia as the grieving veiled figure wandering inconsolably around her rooms as if her husband had just died.

These roles are all disrupted for the audience’s amusement and the characters’ correction during the ensuing scenes, with the play particularly conspiring to trick Olivia out of her image of herself as a grand widow. There’s an echo here of Miss Havisham, though in a very different key: women are not permitted to adopt the role of widow simply because they want to.

Both characters are diverted away from a successful performance as “pseudowidows” by the narratives in which they appear: Olivia to happy marriage and Miss Havisham to pathological bitterness and mockery.

‘A veil of wickedness’

In fact we don’t have to rely on my close-reading of these fictional texts to find anxiety around women “playing” at being widows. That harping on Olivia wearing a veil and walking secluded from men “like a cloistress” brings another group of women into play, whose apparent freedom from male jurisdiction has produced anger and revulsion in various eras.

I don’t have space to examine the way in which nuns in the Middle Ages navigated the rhetoric of “brides of Christ” alongside the reality that many entered the community after the death of a husband, or their social position. But one particular case stands out amongst the criticism of female religious orders: the bishop of Olmüt’s attack on the Beguines.

These women, who lived together in small self-governing groups, taking few vows and following the Rule of no specific order, were the subject of a lot of criticism in the later thirteenth century. Bruno, the bishop in question, wrote to the pope in 1273 to demand they be suppressed.

In R.W. Southern’s words:

he complained that…the women used their liberty as a veil of wickedness in order to escape the yoke of obedience to their priests and ‘the coercion of marital bonds’. Above all, he was indignant that young women should assume the status of widowhood against the authority of the Apostle who approved no widows under the age of sixty.

The bishop was referring to verses in the New Testament book of 1 Timothy, in which instructions are given for the way the “order of widows” should be run and who should be admitted. These women, who worked for the church and were provided with support, should all be over the age of sixty, have a good reputation and previously carried out pious works.

Obviously “widow” has a technical significance in this Biblical passage, but I was fascinated by Bruno’s line of attack: that the young women of the Beguines were setting themselves up as if they were widows, and thus escaping male authority.

His metaphor of a “veil of wickedness” once again acts as a focus for male anxiety over women who won’t accept their assigned role.

In part two of this post, I’ll delve into widow imagery in modern TV and film, including The Gilmore Girls and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

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